Friday 5 January 2024

Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley (Tachyon Publications) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #276 (July–August 2018).

Nyxnissa so Dasheem, Nyx for short, is a mean-spirited mercenary who might have a heart of gold – if you catch her on the right day, and it won’t interfere with the job she’s on, and she hasn’t already sold the heart. She isn’t quite as irredeemable as Lavie Tidhar’s Gorel or Karl Edward Wagner’s immortal Kane, but she’s no saint: she murders law enforcement officials if they get in her way and at one point she remembers ordering sappers, back in the war, to blow up a Chenjan city, “kids, cats, and all”. She carries a pistol and a scattergun, wears a whip, and has razor blades in her sandals and poisoned needles in her hair, and she is much more ready to use them than most science fiction heroes. Think Conan at his selfish worst: like him she drinks and screws away the money she earns, leaving her in dire need of each new adventure.

Her world has been at war for a few hundred years, riven by religious conflict. It’s a place where everything runs on insects and bugs, and this entomological technology is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. Cancer from the burning suns and toxic air is a part of everyday life. The men of her country, Nasheen, have to serve thirty years at the front, while women serve two. People who make it to their mid-twenties, like Nyx herself when the book begins, are considered middle-aged, though she’s heard rumours of pampered members of the First Families living to be sixty. Unsurprisingly, men often go AWOL from the front, and government assassins, the bel dames, are assigned to recapture them, or collect their heads – literally.

Nyx’s back story proves a fertile source of new problems. She went to war at sixteen, then became a bel dame. That went badly, so she spent time as a smuggler, carrying contraband inside her womb. After that landed her in prison for a stretch, she became a mercenary and bounty hunter, taking jobs that pay the rent but rarely pass the smell test. Now she’s setting up a team: odd jobs and body reclamation, says the shingle. Her useful little gang – including a moralist shapeshifter, a felonious sniper/weapons tech and a snot-nosed kid of a com tech (as she thinks of them) – gives the book a touch of Doc Savage or Mission: Impossible. Most prominent of the group is Rhys, her Chenjan magician with benefits, who’s only been with the team a few weeks when the book begins. He looks at her with hope, but she can’t live up to his principles, which gives her mistakes serious weight, even when she escapes legal consequences.

Nyx previously appeared in the popular Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy by the same author: God’s War, Infidel and Rapture, which appeared in 2011 and 2012. This belated companion collects five substantial and spectacularly violent stories published between 2014 and 2017. The author has referenced the early Elric novellas, but the tone reminded me of early black and white 2000 AD: these stories read like they were drawn by Carlos Ezquerra. This is the kind of world where you find corridors lined with trembling mucus, and then notice the mucus is crawling with larvae. In “The Body Project” the dead body of a guy turns up in two fresh parts, which is weird because Nyx got him killed years ago and a thousand miles away. In “The Heart Is Eaten Last”, “Soulbound”, “Crossroads at Jannah” and “Paint Red” the team deals with issues including bombs, life debts, Death Magicians, data fishing in acidic slurry, and shapeshifters whose transformations feature long strings of mucus bleeding from their eyes and mouths as their bodies fold in.

Four of the stories were originally published via the author’s Patreon, but don’t take that to mean they are aimed only at fans. Each takes care to introduce and re-introduce the characters and the world. Of course the book will appeal to existing fans of the trilogy very much, and it works well as a sampler of Nyx’s universe, but it’s highly enjoyable as a book in its own right. For all that God’s War was nominated for every award under the sun, I enjoyed this more: Nyx’s tempestuous life lends itself perfectly to discrete, action-packed episodes. And when the setting is so gruelling it’s good to know that the end of each disastrous episode is never too far away. As Nyx observes at one point, her ramshackle team of misfits are pretty much always doomed to fail, but that’s what makes it so exhilarating when they manage to survive. Stephen Theaker ****

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